Downtown Buffalo hostel could lose home - The Buffalo News
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Downtown Buffalo hostel could lose home

The days could be numbered for Hostel Buffalo-Niagara, a fixture in the Theater District since 1996.

With downtown on the upswing, the city's Urban Renewal Agency issued a request for proposals to developers last month to buy and redevelop the building it operates from.

The responses are due Wednesday.

Hostel officials fear the proposal's stated goal of finding a "qualified development team" could doom its chances – and make the hostel's departure inevitable.

"The hostel is good for the city, it represents the city, and it's one of the highest rated hostels in the country," said Anthony Caferro, the hostel's vice president. "But it's pretty clear that if a large developer moved in, there will be more money in loft apartments."

On Sunday, overnight visitors at 667 Main St. came from Egypt, China, Somalia, Turkey, Germany, England and Canada, as well as out-of-state Americans. Around 6,000 travelers from around the world annually stay at the hostel.

Caferro said he doubts the hostel could relocate.

"I don't think we would be able to afford it at this point," Caferro said.

The not-for-profit, 50-bed hostel pays the city below-market rent at the location.

"We have been paying the city half of our revenue as lease payment. We have a sweetheart deal," Caferro said.

 

Back on tax roll

The city has sold three buildings on the 600 block of Main Street – the Market Arcade, the former Market Arcade cinema, and the Irish Classical Theatre building – in recent years.

"This continues what the Brown administration has done with the buildings on that block," said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning. "The city wants them privately owned. The tens of thousands of square feet we have now put back on the tax roll have assisted in adding vibrancy to that block."

Mehaffy said the city has worked well with the hostel, and the decision to seek a developer had nothing to do with the hostel being there.

He said the city was unable to only offer a portion of the building for redevelopment because the utilities are connected.

"We will look at all of the options that are presented as as result of the RFP process," Mehaffy said.

The historic Glenny Building, designed by famed Buffalo architect E.B. Green, was the home of Norban's Self-Service Department Store for 50 years, until it closed in 1988. The three-story, 12,000-square-foot masonry building is assessed at $240,000.

More than half of the building since has been closed off and unused. A fire wall separates the hostel from that part of the building, which needs considerable work, Caferro said.

'Being discarded'

Caferro, who founded and operates Slow Roll Buffalo, has an attachment to hostels. He stayed at them when he led high school students on long-distance bicycle tours.

"Two adults and 15 kids on bikes doesn't go well with the Holiday Inn," he said.

Caferro said the hostel was given a good deal by the city because it was willing to locate downtown at a time when few tenants wanted to be there.

"I'd like to think at some point they valued what a hostel can bring," he said.

The current lease with Niagara Frontier Council of American Youth Hostels expires July 1, 2021.

The hostel pays the agency half of its "net cash flow" for rent, defined as all revenues such as room rent, concessions, travel sales commissions and sales of goods. Deductions from revenues includes utilities, salaries and liability insurance. That comes to around $10,000 a year.

"During the Masiello administration, the 600 block of Main Street was given away in order to get development activity," said Cliff Madell, the hostel's president who negotiated the first lease with the city. "We got a comparable deal, and we have been a good tenant who always paid its rent on time when other properties on the block weren't paying rent at all."

Madell said the hostel has held up its end of the bargain, and deserves better treatment from the city.

"At the point when the city needed people to redevelop, we stepped in to help the city get the block operable," Madell said. "We run a really vibrant program that benefits all of Buffalo. Now that the 600 block, like all of downtown Buffalo, has become so hot from a private developer perspective, we are just being discarded."

'Cultural asset'

The Hostel Buffalo-Niagara's board members and staff say they weren't notified about the RFP until it was released, and only then to expect visits from prospective developers.

The hostel plans to submit its own proposal: a $1.7 million plan to redevelop the rest of the building into 15 affordable extended stay units and three commercial spaces.

Madell envisions theater people from a traveling troupe staying during productions, medical researchers coming to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus for a month or two and medical students taking up residence while on rotation.

"No one is offering extended stay housing," Madell said. "There is a lot of housing on those downtown blocks, but no one is providing a service that brings in young adults to Buffalo like we are. We are bringing millennials down to the theater district by the thousands each year."

 

Hike Bruckmueller of Germany has breakfast at the downtown Buffalo hostel. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Jonathan Piret, the hostel's manager, said the year-round facility has survived even as two in Niagara Falls closed in recent years.

The hostel recorded 58,713 overnight stays in the past 10 fiscal years, he said.

The hostel charges $30 a night, with beds offered in male, female and coed dorms. Private rooms start at $85. The facility is open until 10:30 p.m. daily.

Piret said traveler's ages generally range between 18 and 35, and include many on bicycle excursions. Independent touring cyclists are given a half-off discount. In the spring, summer and fall, the hostel, with Go Bike Buffalo and Breadhive Bakery, present free outside community bike breakfasts, and free bike registration by the Buffalo Place Rangers.

The hostel has also become a cultural hub, partnering with Squeaky Wheel, Dreamland and others to present local music and art.

"I feel this is a pretty vital asset to Buffalo and the downtown area, and especially the region," Piret said. "These are 6,000 travelers who would otherwise go to Niagara Falls, Ont., if we weren't here.

"I think that if the city knew what a cultural asset and international asset it was, we wouldn't be in jeopardy of not being here. It's truly a unique place, and not all cities have them," Piret said.

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